The journalism crisis and how it affects working class people, explained
THE UNITED STATES — Last week, the Mainline published “How the PRO Act would help working Georgians,” written by Democratic Socialists of America member K.A. Bond. Upon publishing, we declared it our first act as a labor press, in what we expect to be the first of many collaborations with the Atlanta chapter of the DSA. While the term “labor press” has a nice ring to it and feels ultimately fitting for what we need right now, there are few modern-day examples of what a labor press actually is, what it does, and how it does that, especially in the South.
There are examples like LaborPress, a New York-based daily labor union news resource, the Portland-based Northwest Labor Press, and … well, that’s kind of it. There is also the University of Washington’s Labor Press Project, which “brings together information about the history and ongoing influence of newspapers and periodicals published by unions, labor councils, and radical organizations in the Pacific Northwest.” On their site, the Labor Press Project states that, “Labor newspapers have been a critical part of American labor movements since the early 19th century and an equally critical, if largely unacknowledged, part of the history of American journalism.” If it truly is a critical part of labor movements, then why are there so few?
In this article, I explore what an emboldened labor press in the 21st century, particularly in the South, may look like. My work so far as an independent journalist has mostly been as a publisher of Atlanta local news, a city whose newsrooms experienced the same collapse as the rest of the nation’s preceding the COVID-19 outbreak last year. This collapse is part of what’s widely known in the industry as the journalism crisis, which we are still in. Further, in the South, we deserve especially tailored exploration because our region is uniquely posited to another issue: we are regularly forfeited by politicians and national news outlets, who continuously fail to properly cover Southern issues, such as systemic racism and voter suppression. (For the love of God, stop labeling Republicans in the South as idiots; they’re very calculated and intelligent, and failing to recognize that only helps them slide by as some sort of small threat when they’re not.)
It’s important to note that to truly cover and serve a labor movement in the U.S., it is absolutely vital to include matters of intersectionality. To put it plainly, a labor press can not properly cover and serve a labor movement if it does not center the experiences and voices of Black women as well as Indigenous and trans folx. If there is to be a collective shift that works to consciously create something that truly works for all, then the most vulnerable populations need to be held front and center. Otherwise, it will inevitably fail, as we saw with America’s labor movement of the early 20th century. There is absolutely, without a doubt, no room for interpretation or experimentation on this.
Now, let’s zoom out from Georgia and take a look at the bigger picture. The Biden-Harris administration has been in office for over six weeks and so far what we’ve seen is: the $15 minimum wage amendment was voted down by eight moderate Democrats, the U.S. bombed Syria under Biden’s orders, about 5,000 residents in Jackson, Miss., are still without water, hundreds of Haitian immigrants have been deported despite promises and claims to halt deportations, the passing of the George Floyd Policing Act in the House of Representatives, and an array of disappointing compromises in the upcoming COVID-19 relief bill. Of course, still no stimulus checks, but the Democratic Party simply insists we all reassess our definitions of “immediately” and “$2,000”.
The George Floyd Policing Act, named after the man whose murder by Minneapolis police last May sparked national uprisings for racial justice and calls to defund police, actually approves more funding and appropriations for police departments. In regards to the minimum wage vote, seven of the eight Democrats who voted down the amendment are millionaires. These two points in particular illuminate a very important problem: our government is being run by people who don’t understand the struggles of the working class, lower-income communities, and those in poverty. Please note that when we discuss those in poverty and lower-income communities, we are largely discussing communities of color, as the class divide has been systematically constructed to further strap people of color and Black people into poverty.
The events as they happen are already tragic enough, while news coverage surrounding it generally brings it to another level. The same problem we are seeing in our government is also happening widely in our newsrooms across the country: those reporting on current events and our government are also people who don’t seem to understand the struggles of the working class, lower-income communities, and those in poverty. Additionally, most mainstream journalists are wealthy, with those working at institutions like NPR or The New York Times, sometimes making six-figure salaries, unburdened by student loan debt or fear of being evicted from their homes. For those not making full-fledged salaries, as those are fewer and further between in the journalism crisis era, there are freelancers who are making next to nothing per article. It’s very difficult for those who don’t come from wealth to be successful in media, because writers typically have to settle for $20 to $50 for an article or even worse, just for the “exposure.”
Although most journalists don’t accumulate wealth through journalism work, many participating come from privilege and don’t really need to depend on a job for their income. This is appealing to many news outlets because it keeps their overhead low. To bring it back to Atlanta, take its waning alt-weekly publication Creative Loafing, which gutted its newsroom right before the holidays in the winter of 2017. The layoffs left the newsroom with a single digit headcount, and to my recollection from serving as a freelancer there at the time, largely depended on one staff editor, numerous cheaply-paid freelance writers, and unpaid work from college interns. The most I made as a contributor at the Loaf was $90 for feature pieces, but $25-$75 was more of the standard. I bartended and waited tables until October 2019 when I took the leap to build up freelance work, which is one way of saying I left one job to go work six jobs so I could spend more time writing and building this little operation when I could.
As a result of numerous precipitating and systemic factors, the media, which is intended to be our country’s “fourth estate”, experiences its own wealth and racial inequality gap. No wonder it largely fails to deliver to those of us living in the margins, just like the U.S. government.
National coverage, which has by and large become most people’s news sources due to the collapse of local journalism over the past 15 years, has done quite a number on public opinion when it comes to our nation’s most pressing issues. For one, our country is the most polarized it’s ever been in the decline of traditional media. This decline of traditional media — which CBN News Radio Brazilian Network, associate professor of journalism at ESPM School, and Columbia Journalism Review contributor Ricardo Gandour labels as “stable platforms of journalistic production” — is characterized by “newsrooms reeling … staffing decimated, a weakening of the stable platforms threatens to cause general informational impoverishment, a degradation of the entire information ecosystem.”
This has led us down the path of an increasingly intensified culture war over things that are very simple, but have largely become overly complicated, such as whether or not healthcare or voting is a basic human right, or whether or not the state should be permitted to kill civilians. Last summer’s national coverage of the defunding police movement is a perfect example of this, but more on that later.
As public opinion is molded by national news outlets, whether that be CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News, the national conversation surrounding these events is generally reflective of major outlets’ narratives. One thing that is becoming universal among centrists and right-wingers alike, strangely, is shaming the left. Depending on where the shame slinging is coming from, it’s either for being too critical of moderates or the current administration or simply too radical. When it comes to those against the left, what we are used to seeing as a Venn diagram or a political spectrum has morphed into some weird blob that seems oddly hellbent on stifling a movement that simply wants a system that works for all people.
This narrative has become overwhelmingly commonplace and places an inordinate amount of faith in a system that is failing before our eyes in plain sight, just hidden under massive amounts of performative neoliberal politics. Further, it criticizes the only sect of the political spectrum that could be a worthy opposition to the rising far-right and fascist ideological groups such as the Christian right in America. A strong movement and press is needed to counter those who are already regularly elevated in mainstream news and supported by police departments, politicians, and even the FBI. If the left could receive even a fraction of monetary support and considerable news coverage the right and Republicans do, it would be of great interest to all those who do not wish to see a dominant and successful right wing populace take hold in our government. (It’s already started; shout outs to Madison Cawthorn, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, et al.)
The rise of these groups is the nearest and most imminent threat to the democracy that so many moderates, centrists, and elites claim to be so sacrosanct and worth dying for. Yet, the public has been woefully misinformed and misled by mainstream news regarding antifascists movements as well as Black liberation and civil rights movements in unfair, and many times factually inaccurate, depictions of those in protest. You’d think that especially after the Capitol riots, major news outlets would be interested in speaking with people and on-the-ground activists who have been pushing back against white supremacists and an insurgent right-wing for years; not an array of legal and law enforcement “experts” who don’t have any direct experience in the struggle.
Many can safely assume that this is all in the interest of ratings. This is something many are readily willing to understand, yet do little or nothing about. Overall, whether it’s covering the former president at CPAC or exhausting all corners of Q-Anon coverage, it seems major news outlets can’t let go of that “Trump bump,” which brought them skyrocketing increases in ratings and ad revenue. For The New York Times, that bump was a 66% increase in profits.
While CNN is lending exclusive interviews to Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio, relatives of insurrectionists and participants of the Capitol riots, people who know someone who knows someone who knows Marjorie Taylor Greene, and so on, plenty of activists and BIPOC organizers are working tirelessly on the ground to put pressure on a government that is failing its people daily. Lending airtime and interviews to activists, organizers, civil rights attorneys, and community leaders would help to normalize discussions of justice and issues of systemic oppression, as well as solutions to these problems. Normalization and general education is what’s desperately needed in ongoing social movements; and yet, the media refuses to provide us with it. In fact, in creating all this airtime for white supremacists and the far-right, major news outlets are becoming the fastest way for someone to be radicalized to the right wing by further normalizing its rhetoric and essentially doing their PR for free.
When we consider policy (leaving personalities and certain actors aside), those on the left, which largely consists of working class and marginalized people, simply believe we can exist in a world where we don’t have to choose between vaccinating our population and providing them with economic relief. The left says we can have both of those things and not bomb other countries while doing it and not destroy our environment and create millions of jobs in the Green New Deal and increase the minimum wage. The left also says we can have it all without causing harm in the process, which is the most humanitarian and hopeful one can get. Still, the national conversation gets roped into an arbitrary conversation of harm reduction, and progressives and leftists are somehow in the way of us all building a better future.
How does this happen? Isn’t that, after all, what a majority of us want, across party lines: a better future?
A major reason we stay stuck in this paradigm is because the working class is widely unsupported when it comes to media and press. If that doesn’t resonate, let me ask you: do your major news sources leave you with tangible and concrete solutions, or translate issues on a level you can easily understand? Do the major news outlets you follow more often than not prompt aggravation and feeling lost, rather than informed and empowered? Do your mainstream news sources help make sense of issues as they directly relate to you and affect you? Do your sources’ newsrooms consist of people who look like you, live like you, and are affected by the same issues as you?
If this resonates with you, keep reading. If it doesn’t, click the little “x” in this tab of your browser, which will make this page disappear. This article isn’t for you, and you have plenty of sources out there that are already working for you.
There is major sentiment among the working class and the left that none of what we are witnessing and experiencing is surprising. While that unsurprising factor is understandable, it is disheartening and disappointing to see how that’s been co-opted into normalizing atrocities we should regularly allow to assault our senses, as the wealth income inequality gap becomes wider and wider during a time when the system is beyond reproach, incapable of fixing it. The facts about the current Biden-Harris administration and its lack of progress should be held in a regard that serves to disturb those who are comfortable in the current system in order to help us build systems of comfort and aid for those regularly experiencing oppression and marginalization. And since the government doesn’t seem so keen on helping us do that, mutual aid has been making huge strides and gaining major recognition during the coronavirus pandemic.
Mutual aid efforts have served communities nationwide more effectively, directly, and swiftly than our own government. What happened in Texas during the winter storm crisis last month is the ultimate example. Not only did it highlight the need for mutual aid, but it highlighted the utter failures of government-regulated programs that have so much red tape wrapped around them, you can hear it crinkling every time you read an article attempting to explain how government assistance works. Oftentimes, by the time you’ve filled out an application to receive government aid, sent it in, and waited anxiously for either your rejection or acceptance, someone else received mutual aid assistance three times already. In most mutual aid efforts, you can submit an application to a local fund and receive direct material support, little to no questions asked. One problem mutual aid efforts run into is lack of exposure, whether that be through news outlets or advertising. Seeking this type of exposure can usually be costly in terms of time, energy, and finances, which takes away from the actual work of helping others.
In Atlanta, there are policies in place that criminalize feeding the homeless and hinder mutual aid efforts, which is authoritarian in nature because it strips communities and individuals of their autonomy to support each other in times of need. It is an enforcement of strict obedience to authority at the expense of personal freedom. As we are regularly and insidiously stripped of the ability to function in community compassion, we become destabilized as individuals, which is a basic tenet in totalitarian governments.
Additionally, Georgia is one of the few states left in the U.S. to still pay its restaurant workers $2.13 per hour, a tip policy that’s rooted in slavery. This means a great number of the 448,400 people who work in one of the state’s most profitable industries, which brought in $22.8 billion in 2018, are centuries behind when it comes to the minimum wage average in the country. We have yet to see this issue take prominence in local, state, or national coverage in a way that will create better working and material conditions for thousands of workers and families. On nearly all levels, mainstream press does little to put pressure on public institutions or politicians, nor does it do much to challenge the national conversation that largely serves the status quo and the elite.
On a broader scale, perhaps one of the most detrimental examples of this is The New York Times, which completely left working class women out of the #MeToo conversation in 2017. The publication failed to accurately capture the true state of violence against women in the U.S., which, if reported more accurately, would force us all to confront our true realities. A 2018 survey by the Thomson Reuters Foundation rated the U.S. among the top 10 most dangerous countries for women, the only Western country to make the list at number 10. And because of the objectification and hypersexualization of women of color, which is largely rooted in colonization, Black women and WOC are at disproportionate risk of sexual violence. In the U.S., more than 20% of Black women are raped during their lifetimes, a higher share than among women overall. Black women also experience higher rates of intimate partner homicide when compared to their white counterparts.
The New York Times’ coverage — which is, whether we like or not, considered gospel in this country despite its past harms and complicit acts in matters of war, misogyny, racism, and public policy — only served to place violence against women somewhere in far away lands known as Hollywood and Big Tech, even though it permeates nearly every aspect of our society, from being accosted right outside our homes all the way up to the Oval Office, and affects one in three women in our country’s population.
Further, there’s a difference between elite media, which can be progressive in ideology, and working class media. A labor press would act by funneling all issues through the lens of the working class and asking the tough questions while informing its audience on how they can civically participate, enhance worker solidarity, and offer greater context to everyday issues that are directly affecting them. We can talk in circles philosophizing about how defunding the police is only one facet of abolition, how police reform is arbitrary, how Karl Marx and Noam Chomsky were right, all day long — but if you’re not telling working class people how these ideas and visions can one day turn into policy and improve their material conditions, you’re wasting working class people’s time.
Not all have the privilege to sit around and read lofty articles about suburban women who were former Trump supporters, or think about why white supremacists think the way they do, all from corporate-driven news sources who fail to properly identify themselves as part of the problem. It is a privilege to have the time and energy to have such conversations, and our mainstream media is failing to deliver solution and evidence-based reporting to working class people as a result of being completely unattached to that class.
The reason why most news outlets feel so detached from the issues is because they are. They’re not in the trenches and they’re not affected by the issues they’re covering. This is one major reason why defunding police was completely botched by national media, which took a very personal, local community issue and distorted it through a national lens that is composed of majority white male reporters and editorial boards — a population that is the very last to be affected by police violence, brutality, and mistreatment.
According to the Columbia Journalism Review’s 2018 piece “Decades of Failure” by journalist Gabriel Arana, only 17% of newsrooms in the U.S. are non-white. Arana goes on to explain that “despite being in majority-minority cities, the newsrooms of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, for instance, are both 81 percent white. The Washington Post is 70 percent white. Minorities make up 72 percent of the population of Los Angeles, but only 33 percent of the Los Angeles Times.”
This is why local journalism is so important, because local journalists are uniquely positioned to understand the issues of the communities they are in. Frequently, local journalists are even part of the story, because they live in those communities. And independent media, if given the proper resources, can tackle the issues without hinderance of corporate advertisers and outside influences. However, as it stands today, these are elements in the industry that, although now considered highly valuable and are widely coveted, are extremely undercompensated. The way our society treats and values independent and local media is like when someone leaves a server 5% tip, but leaves a note on the receipt about how great the service was and how important the server’s work is. We call these “verbal tips,” and they’re nice and all, but they don’t pay the bills.
Besides enlisting those actually affected by these issues to tell their stories and uplifting them, a labor press would lend its resources — which, for a media outlet, is time, energy, and coverage — to activists and regular working class/low-income people to properly tell the nation’s story. It would humanize the homelessness, incarceration, and immigration crises rather than discussing it as something that is way over there, away from us somehow. It would connect the dots between wages, gentrification, police brutality, and climate change, while helping to educate its audience of these issues and how we can work together collectively to combat them.
While a labor press is a relatively obscure concept in this day and age, it can be simply considered as the opposing force to corporate media. Just as we discuss corporate news serving corporate interests, a labor press serves the working class and the people’s interests. To tie it back to the discussion of the PRO Act, which is currently number one on the docket in the DSA’s national agenda, we will not see corporate-driven mainstream news outlets put the pressure on moderate and centrist Democrats that is needed to help us course correct in a system that is heavily tilted to serve and favor white supremacists, Wall Street, and the Christian right. We can be rest assured that neoliberalism will not be sufficient in handling our current problems; rather, it’s more likely to funnel us back into a quick mudslide into neofascism. And as long as mainstream news outlets are driven by corporate interests, it will never help the public understand this or accurately cover matters of justice, equity, and equality.
A labor press works beyond the constraints of corporatism and what’s become the ridiculous standard known as “objectivity” in journalistic practice, which is merely a construct that transcends human capability. No person is unbiased; it’s not possible. “Objectivity” is just another construct used to help uphold the white cis male gaze in our systems. A labor press serves to counter a corporate media system that was established to uphold a white power structure that tilts the system in favor of right-wing and centrist politics. A labor press serves an intentional objective to serve people, functioning in service journalism in conjunction with providing information. A labor press is composed of workers, marginalized people, and survivors. A labor press believes workers and pressures employers rather than siding with authority figures that have been known to lie. This is adjacent to progressive press functions in covering matters like police brutality, opting out of sourcing police officials who are incentivized to lie and manipulate the general public on matters of state-sanctioned murder.
One thing that workers tend to forget is that the elite need us more than we need them. It’s not that workers are powerless (although that is an idea perpetuated in corporate America and politics); it’s that most don’t understand how to exercise the power they do have, because they are not being informed or exposed to that reality. We may kick and scream a lot, but the reality is, those sitting on the thrones reaping the benefits of these systems don’t care whether or not we like it; we are still making them rich at the cost of our own detriment.
We have to stop doing this.
It’s time for a new social contract between the working class and the press. I invite you to unsubscribe from corporate-run outlets and participate in rebuilding a bold labor press for these times. When we eliminate profit motive and the toxic quest for ratings, we will see the beginning of a healthier information ecosystem that works to embolden those who are regularly disempowered and disenfranchised. A labor press will do exactly that and introduce action steps for constituents to take, opening a door for collective action to take hold in the face of a system that has buckled under corporate pressure.
Inevitably, as this vision is put into practice and practical application in local communities, we will find that the issues we so regularly consider to be separate of one another — the right to unionize, gentrification, displacement, minimum wage, police brutality, the right to protest, climate change, immigration, mass incarceration — are not separate at all. They function in one major operative, which is the reality we all live in. This is a complex reality that major news outlets and popular culture at large regularly opt out of in exchange for a simpler reality of red versus blue, Democrat versus Republican, bad guy versus good guy, or good cop versus bad cop.
This over-simplified narrative is constructed while censoring the American public from general strikes and revolutions taking place all over the world. Instead of waiting for the signal, it’s time for workers, the left, and independent press to come together and unionize, formally or informally. Existing systems be damned; it’s time to create our own.